Inside our mapathon to help Buffalo voters better access polling locations
Note: Woven Planet became Woven by Toyota on April 1, 2023. Note: This blog was originally published on December 5, 2020 by CARMERA, which is now part of Woven Planet. This post was updated on December 13, 2022.
Most of us take maps for granted. They’re a reliable convenience — a tool to help us get from point A to point B. But maps are also powerful tools that help increase accessibility to — and for — communities in need. Indeed, in the aftermath of a disaster, humanitarian organizations will often put out a call to the mapping community to help update maps that have been dramatically altered, helping aid organizations better prioritize, direct and coordinate aid. Such was the case in Beirut after the August 2020 explosion or following Hurricane Dorian.
The historic presidential election of 2020 also presented an accessibility challenge, albeit on a slightly less dramatic scale. The coronavirus pandemic made voting more complicated for everyone, especially for those who would normally rely on public or shared transportation.
Enter the Taskar Center for Accessible Technology (TCAT) at the University of Washington who put out a call to the broader mapping community: MapToTheVote2020 — an election-focused mapathon that combined a little friendly competition with a lot of social good. The premise was simple: give people “good, clear directions on getting to voting locations, ballot drop-off boxes and USPS locations without depending on public transportation.” Teams would make their updates to OpenStreetMaps (OSM), a collaborative mapping platform used by a wide range of organizations — from the National Park Service to Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft.
This challenge piqued the interest of some of the folks folks on our geospatial team. We set aside several days a year as company-wide empowerment days — opportunities for our team to work on personal projects that benefit the broader community — and MapToTheVote2020 seemed like a perfect group activity for October’s empowerment day.
There was the obvious social good element, which aligned with our For All efforts but there were important team benefits as well.
First, by opening it up to the entire company, team members that don’t have experience with traditional mapmaking could try their hands at some old-school digital cartography. “The mapathon presented a nice chance to get back to basics,” said Geospatial Analyst Ben Gardner, one of the project’s co-organizers. “A lot of our normal work is focused on automating change detection and map updates, so there are folks here that don’t often have the opportunity to get their hands dirty and actually draw vectors and building outlines. We thought this would be a great way of reminding people how maps are traditionally made.”
Second, it gave us a good excuse to have a cross-functional jam session. Like many companies that have moved to remote work for the pandemic, we’re always on the lookout for opportunities to bring teams together and capture some of the spontaneous interaction that comes from being together in an office.
So what did we do?
The first step was to provide a map-making tutorial. “We had volunteers from a variety of departments — HR, finance, marketing, operations and product — so it was important to make sure everyone felt comfortable contributing to OSM,” said Ariel Kadouri, a map dev engineer and project co-organizer.
Second — after spinning up a mapping playlist (what’s mapping without some music?) — we homed in on Buffalo, New York. Buffalo was the ideal match for the project — urban but undermapped. In other words, it was a city that probably had a large number of residents who had been reliant on public transportation and now needed to find safe alternatives for getting to polling locations.
To that end, we wanted to focus on “the last inch.” In addition to tracing buildings, a relatively straightforward thing to do on OSM, we added small details like sidewalks slopes, curb ramps, entrance locations and other small features to the map. The thought being that with this added layer of detail, election-focused products and organizations that use OSM would be able to provide voters with more accurate information and better access. A secondary benefit was that because most polling locations are public facilities — community centers, churches, schools and the like — these updates would have downstream benefits to the people these organizations normally serve.
Central to our mission is making mobility available to more people in more places. This initiative fell right in line with that mission and if we helped just one voter it was worth it.
We’re looking for talented engineers to help us on this journey. If you’d like to join us, we’re hiring!